Monday, December 19, 2011

John Surratt: The Lincoln Conspirator Who Got Away

John Surratt in 1868
John Surratt was the son of convicted Lincoln conspirator, Mary Surratt. Unlike his mother and the eight other conspirators hanged for Abraham Lincoln's assassination, John escaped punishment for his role in the murder after his trial resulted in a mistrial.

John Surratt was working as a Confederate courier and spy during the Civil War when he was introduced to John Wilkes Booth by Dr. Samuel Mudd in December of 1864. Booth and Surratt met several times before Booth asked Surratt to help kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners. Surratt considered the idea for several days and finally agreed.

On March 17th of 1865, the conspirators planned to ambush Lincoln's carriage en route to visit wounded soldiers at Campbell General hospital. The ambush was thwarted when Lincoln changed his plans at the last minute and did not visit the hospital. After the abduction plan fell through, Booth allegedly convinced the group that assassinating the president was the only option.

During his trial, John Surratt denied he had any knowledge of the plan and claimed he was delivering Confederate dispatches in Elmira, New York on the day the assassination took place.

Surratt stated that upon hearing Booth had assassinated Lincoln, he feared he would be implicated in the plot and fled for Canada where a Catholic priest gave him sanctuary. While Surratt was in Canada, his mother Mary Surratt was arrested, tried and hanged for her role in the conspiracy.

John Wilkes Booth
In September of 1865, Surratt took a steamship to Liverpool, England. He served under the alias John Watson in Ninth company of the Pontifical Zouaves in the Papal states before an old friend recognized him and alerted authorities. Surratt was arrested and sent to Velletri prison but escaped and traveled to the Kingdom of Italy, posing as a Canadian citizen, before setting off to Alexandria, Egypt where he was arrested by U.S. Officials in November of 1866 and sent back to the U.S.

When Surratt was finally tried, the statute of limitations had run out on all the charges except murder. Surratt's attorney admitted to Surratt's role in the kidnapping plot but denied any involvement in the murder. The prosecution had little evidence against Surratt and the case eventually ended in a mistrial when the jury could not reach a verdict.

After the trial, in 1870, Surratt began a public lecture tour, during which he explained why he agreed to kidnap Lincoln: “I hope you will not blame me for going thus far. I honestly thought an exchange of prisoners could be brought about could we have once obtained possession of Mr. Lincoln's person. And now reverse the case. Where is there a young man in the North with one spark of patriotism in his heart with would not have with enthusiastic ardor joined in any undertaking for the capture of Jefferson Davis and brought him to Washington? There is not one who would not have done so. And so I was led on by a sincere desire to assist the South in gaining her independence.”

His lecture in Rockville, Maryland was well received but, due to public outrage, his lecture in Washington D.C. was canceled.

Surratt later took a job as a teacher and married a relative of Francis Scott Key. The couple lived in Baltimore and had seven children. Surratt died at the age of 72 from pneumonia and was buried in the New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore.


The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory”; Harold Holzer, Craig L. Symonds, Frank J. Williams, Lincoln Forum; 2010

The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt's Flight from the Gallows”; Andrew C. A. Jampoler; 2008

The Death of Lincoln: the Story of Booth's Plot, His Deed and the Penalty”; Clara Elizabeth Laughlin; 1909

Eastern Illinois University: John Surratt

New York Times; Lecture of the Confederate of John Wilkes Booth in Maryland; December 1870

Friday, December 16, 2011

Child Soldiers in the Civil War

Although most Civil War soldiers were between 18 and 39 years old, many young children also served. It is estimated that at least 100,000 Union soldiers were boys under 15 years old. Many of these boys lied about their age in order to join the army. Other times, especially as the casualties climbed and more soldiers were needed, recruiters looked the other way when under age boys signed up for the army.

Johnny Clem
These boy soldiers usually served as drummer boys, musicians, messengers, nurses and scouts for the troops. During the heat of battle, many of these boys put these duties aside and joined the troops in combat. One such soldier was Johnny Clem, an 11 year-old drummer boy for the Union army. Johnny became a celebrity during the battle of Chickamauga when he shot a Confederate officer after he demanded Johnny to surrender. The army later promoted Johnny to sergeant and awarded him a silver medal. Johnny eventually earned the nickname “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” or “Johnny Shiloh.” He was also commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant as a second-lieutenant in 1871. Johnny was the last Civil War soldier still actively serving in the army when he retired, as Brigadier-General, in 1915.

The youngest Union soldier and the youngest soldier to fight in the Civil War was a boy named Edward Black. Edward was born on May 30 in 1853, making him just 8 years old when he joined the Union army on July 24, 1861 as a drummer boy for the 21st Indiana volunteers. He is also considered one of the youngest soldiers ever to serve in the history of the U.S. Army. Black was captured at the Battle of Baton Rouge in August of 1862 but was freed when the Union army won the battle. After the army discharged him in September of 1862, Edward reenlisted with 1st Indiana Volunteer Heavy Artillery in February 1863. He continued fighting until the end of the war and was honorable discharged in Feb of 1866.

 The youngest Confederate soldier was a boy named Charles C. Hay who joined the Alabama regiment when he was eleven years old and the youngest soldier injured during the war was a boy named William Black. Black was just 12 years old when his left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell.

Private Edwin Frances Jemison
As the youngest recruits, these boys often served as musicians and drummers, such as Willie Johnston, an 11 year-old drummer during the Peninsula campaign, Orion Howe, a 14 year-old drummer who was severely wounded during the battle of Vicksburg and John Cook, a young bugle player who volunteered to operate a cannon during the battle of Antietam.

Many of these children joined the army because they were either runaways, orphans or they wanted to fight alongside their brothers and fathers. Although they held romantic and heroic notions of war, it wasn't long until they experienced the full horrors of war. One boy from Wisconsin, Elisha Stockwell, described his experience during the battle of Shiloh in 1862:

I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”

Another boy, 16-year-old John A. Cockerhill, also described his experience at Shiloh:

"I passed… the corpse of a beautiful boy in gray who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hand folded peacefully across his breast. He was clad in a bright and neat uniform, well garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. His neat little hat lying beside him bore the number of a Georgia regiment… He was about my age… At the sight of the poor boy’s corpse, I burst into a regular boo hoo and started on."

Although young children, these boys served their country with as much bravery and dedication as any of the full grown men they fought alongside. About 48 young boys under age 18 won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery during battle and many continued to serve in the army long after the war ended.


Fighting Men of the Civil War”; William C. Davis; Russ A. Pritchard; 1989

Soldiers Blue and Gray”; James I. Robertson; 1998 

Boy Soldiers of the Confederacy”; Susan R. Hull; 1905

Children of the Civil War”; Candice F. Ransom; 1998 

New York Times; The Boys of War; Cate Lineberry, October 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Albert Woolson: The Last Civil War Veteran

Albert Woolson
Albert Woolson was a former Union drummer boy and the last surviving Civil War soldier. Born in Antwerp, Minnesota on February 11 in 1847, he died at the age of 109 on August 2 in 1956 in Duluth, Minnesota. 
Although other men, such as Walter Williams, John Salling and William Lundy, died after Woolson and also claimed to be Civil War soldiers, no evidence could be found to verify their claims. Lying about serving in the Civil War in order to get a Civil War pension was a common practice, especially during hard times like the Great Depression. Many actual veterans also lied about their age when enlisting in order to gain entry into the military, making the matter even more confusing.

Woolson's father, Willard Woolson, also fought in the Civil War but died from wounds received in the battle of Shiloh. After his father died, Albert Woolson enlisted as a rifleman on October 10, 1864 but served as a drummer boy for Company C in the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. The company never saw combat and Woolson was honorably discharged in September of 1865.

After the war, Woolson returned to civilian life in Minnesota where he worked as a carpenter. He married Jane Sloper in 1868 and remained married until her death in 1901. Woolson remarried a few years later to a woman named Anna Haugen. Haugen died in 1949. The two marriages produced a total of six daughters and two sons.

In the late 1800s, Woolson joined the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans. According to the book “Minnesota in the Civil War”, Woolson was one of only six Civil War veterans to attend the group's last encampment in Indianapolis in 1949. Woolson also served as the organization's senior vice commander in chief in 1953. Since he was the last surviving Civil War veteran, the organization was dissolved after his death.

Late in his life, Woolson was interviewed by a number of news organizations. During one interview he told reporters about his experience firing a practice round of a cannon during the war: "One day the colonel handed me the end of a long rope. He said, ‘When I yell, you stand on your toes, open your mouth, and pull.’ First time the cannon went off, I was scared to death” Woolson also explained his personal feelings about the war, stating: “We were fighting our brothers. In that there was no glory.”

Woolson also said he voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1864 when he was 17 years old under a special law that allowed soldiers to vote and he described his childhood experiences meeting Lincoln and watching John Wilkes Booth perform at Ford's Theater:
"One day father and I went to the capitol building at Albany, N.Y. There was a meeting there and one man was tall, had large bony hands. It was old Uncle Abe, and he talked about human slavery....When I was nine years old, I went in with my father to Ford’s Theater. Two brothers, actors on the stage, the youngest one is the one that shot Lincoln, later on. We were that evening at the theater, the first time I was in there. About a week later, one evening, the President of the United States and his wife were sitting in the audience, and he walked up and shot him right through the back of the head. He lived about three, four hours. He said “six soberly tourney,” that means that is the fate of Judaism. Poor old Abe.” 

When Woolson died of a recurring lung condition, he was buried with full military honors at the Park Hill cemetery in Duluth. After his death, Life magazine ran a seven page article highlighting the significance of his death:
The Civil War, the greatest single experience we ever had, was both an end and a beginning. But when the final handful of dust drifted down on Albert Woolson's casket, and the last note of the bugle hung against the sky, the door swung shut. It cannot be reopened.”
Albert Woolson's funeral in 1956



"Minnesota in the Civil War: An Illustrated History"; Kenneth Carley, Richard Moe

Life Magazine; The Death of the Last Union Soldier and Of an Era; Bruce Catton; August 1956

Veteran's Memorial Hall: Albert Woolson

Albert Woolson: The Last Living Civil War veteran

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jefferson Davis: President of the Confederacy

Portrait of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis was a statesman and President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Born in Kentucky on June 3, 1808 to Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Davis and Jane Cook, Jefferson Davis was educated at Transylvania University and graduated from West Point academy with fellow cadet Robert E. Lee.

After leaving West Point, Davis began his military career fighting in the Mexican-American war. He served at numerous posts in Wisconsin and Illinois before joining the Black Hawk War in 1832. After resigning from the army in 1835, Davis married the daughter of Colonel Zachary Taylor, Sarah Knox Taylor, and ran a plantation. His marriage ended a few months later when his wife died suddenly of malaria. Davis continued running his plantation for the next 10 years.

Davis remarried in 1845 and was elected to Congress as a Democrat the same year. When the Mexican war broke out the following year, he resigned from Congress and rejoined the military. During the war he commanded a regiment of Mississippi soldiers and earned a reputation as a brave military leader.

Davis' inauguration in February of 1861
In 1847, Jefferson Davis was elected to the Senate and became a spokesperson for southern rights. During his time as Senator, Davis argued against Secession but agreed each state had the right to secede, if they desired. Davis then served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce in 1853 before returning to the Senate when the Pierce's term came to an end.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Davis resigned from the Senate and was elected to a six year term as President of the Confederate States of America. As president, he failed in his efforts to raise funds and supplies from foreign countries, struggled to stop the Union army from marching through the south and watched as the southern economy collapsed on itself.

After he was captured by the Union army on May 10, 1865 in Georgia, he was charged with treason. Imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe in Virginia, the U.S. government never officially tried Davis yet stripped him of his citizenship. Although Davis was against reconstruction in the south, he later encouraged southerns to be loyal to the Union and accept reconciliation.

Davis published his book “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” in 1881 and dedicated it to "to the memory of those who died in defense of a cause consecrated by inheritance, as well as sustained by conviction."

Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889 from acute bronchitis and was buried first at the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans and then in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. His citizenship was posthumously reinstated in 1978.
Davis imprison at Fort Monroe
Grave of Jefferson Davis in Virginia

Encyclopedia Virginia: Jefferson Davis

Tulane University: Jefferson Davis

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Washington Monument

The Washington Monument
The Washington Monument in Washington D.C. was built between 1848 and 1884 as a tribute to George Washington. Although plans for a memorial had been in place before Washington even died in 1799, the plans never came into fruition until the 1830s.

In 1833, a newly formed group called the Washington National Monument Society started a competition to find a design for the monument. For 10 years, the society collected donations from the public as they sifted through scores of designs submitted by architects all over the country.

The society finally chose a design by an architect named Robert Mills. Mills had also designed the U.S. Treasury Building and the patent office. Mills' design called for a Greek pantheon temple with 30 columns at the base of a tall Egyptian obelisk.

Robert Mills' original design
Construction on the obelisk started in 1848 and the worked progressed slowly for six years until funding dried up in 1856. At that point, the obelisk was only half completed and stood just 156 feet tall. After the “Know-Nothing” party failed at an attempt to raise funds and resume construction on the monument, the project still remained unfinished two years later.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, it caused further delays. Due to the cost of the war, political chaos and physical danger as the war raged towards Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas, it appeared the monument would never be completed.

Even after the Civil War ended, the cost of reconstructing the war-torn south overshadowed the need to finish the project and it remained incomplete throughout the 1860s and mid 1870s.

On a trip to Washington in 1867, Mark Twain described the unfinished monument: "It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off...cow sheds around its base . . . [with] tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow."

The unfinished monument in 1860
 The centennial of the country's birth in 1876 finally renewed the public's interest in the project. President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill to restart construction on the project but by then the structure was deemed unstable and in need of an overhaul.

After looking briefly at some new design ideas, the Washington National Monument Society decided to stick with the original plan but eliminated the Greek pantheon at the base of the monument. Construction resumed on the monument later that year. The only white marble that workers could obtain was a slightly different shade than the original marble, resulting in the faint color change at the 156 feet mark that can still be seen today.

The monument was finally completed in December of 1884, measuring 555 feet tall and weighing more than 8,000 tons. The monument is made of white marble from Maryland and Massachusetts and is underlain by Maryland blue gneiss and Maine granite.

The monument underwent a one million dollar restoration in the late 1990s to repair cracks and chips in the marble as well as repairs to the interior. In August of 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake resulted in major structural damage to the monument, causing visible cracks in the marble and damage to the elevator shaft. The building has been closed indefinitely until the structure is repaired.

Security camera video courtesy of the National Parks Service (No audio)
Visible crack in the marble from the 2011 earthquake

Washington Post; Washington Monuments That Never Quite Made It; Mary Kay Ricks; Jan 1999

Washington Post; Washington Monument Closed Indefinitely; Michael Ruane; Sept 2011

National Park Service: Washington Monument

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam was one of the bloodiest single day battles of the Civil War. Taking place near Sharpsburg, Maryland on Sept 17, 1862, it was also the first battle to occur on northern soil. During the battle, 38,000 Confederate troops, led by General Robert E. Lee, clashed with 75,000 Union troops, led by General George B. McClellan.
Lincoln visiting the battlefield of Antietam
The battle occurred after General McClellan followed General Lee into Maryland during Lee's ambitious plan to invade the north and launched attacks against his troop's left flank near Antietam creek on the morning of September 17. The Confederates counterattacked and the battle spilled onto Miller's cornfield near Dunker Church and into the East Woods, West Woods and the Sunken road.

By the afternoon, Union troops captured a stone bridge over Antietam Creek and charged the Confederate's right flank. Confederate reinforcements, fresh from the Battle of Harper's Ferry, arrived just in time to counterattack and drove back the Union soldiers, ending the battle. By the end of the 12 hour battle, 2,108 Union soldiers and 1,546 Confederate soldiers lay dead and tens of thousands were missing.

The battle successfully thwarted General Lee's attempts to push north and was considered a strategic win for the Union army. This success prompted Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in seceded states and discouraged Britain and France from giving the Confederates money or supplies.
Dead soldiers near Dunker Church
Many of the wounded were carried to one of the 70 field hospitals established in barns and churches near the battlefield. Civil War nurse Clara Barton brought much needed supplies to the battlefield and field hospitals and tended to the wounded soldiers. She later described her experiences that day in a letter to a friend:

"A man lying upon the ground asked for drink--I stooped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding the cup to his lips with my left, when I felt a sudden twitch of the loose sleeve of my dress--the poor fellow sprang from my hands and fell back quivering in the agonies of death--a ball had passed between my body--and the right arm which supported him--cutting through the sleeve, and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to rest." 

Most of the dead were buried in shallow graves on the battlefield. According to the book  Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day, soil erosion and digging by wild hogs exposed many of the shallow graves on the battlefield in the years after the war and the animals were sometimes seen eating the human remains. The Antietam National Cemetery was finally established in 1867, but only Union soldiers were allowed to be buried in it. The Confederate soldiers were eventually buried in the Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown in 1870.
The "bloody lane" or sunken road near the battlefield
 The stone bridge, now known as Burnside's bridge, over Antietam creek

PBS: The Battle of Antietam

National Parks Service: Battle of Antietam

National Parks Service: Eyewitness to the Battle, Part 2

Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day; Charles Alexander, Ted Alexander; 2011

West Maryland's Historical Library: History of Antietam National Cemetery